My thoughts on Chris Webb Parsons’ high-intensity hangboard program

Chris Webb Parsons has just released an exciting promotional/instructional video on his deadhang training program. I say promotional/instructional because he is also promoting the climblox.com clothing brand which looks like pretty hip and functional stuff.

The training program is quite advanced, I would say, given that it assumes one can almost hang one-handed from an open crimp grip on an edge. I would guesstimate that less than 1% of climbers can do that so this is a graduate level program in my books. This doesn’t mean is isn’t good, but rather that it is geared toward elite climbers. I will make some suggestions to make this more available to the masses.

Chris is a ridiculously strong guy bouldering up to V15 and something clearly has worked for him so automatically his program will get peoples’ attention and he has some instant credibility. I’m generally cautious around training advice from rock stars because often they are really gifted genetically and they only have to climb a lot and they get super strong. However, Chris seems to know his stuff and overall I think it’s a good program.  I’ll give my thoughts as to the pros and cons from a mere mortal’s point of view.

Here’s the video, and I’ll post my comments below.

In summary:

  • It’s a twelve week plan
  • All hangs are one handed on an open crimped edge grip
  • Three different elbow angles are trained – 180, 135 and 60 degrees, and three hangs (repetitions) are done per grip, per arm, per workout
  • Rest between hang repetitions is 3 minutes
  • Frequency is at least 2x per week
  • A piece of rope or sling is used to assist with the non-working hand (minimum level of assistance volitionally possible)
  • The hangs differ in length by week, ranging from 5 seconds to 12 seconds, and a week or two of full rest from hangs are embedded
  • Few (or no) recommendations are made about what else to do i.e. other climbing and conditioning.

In case you missed the duration of each hang for each week, here it is:

  1. 10 seconds
  2. 10 seconds
  3. 5 seconds
  4. 10 seconds
  5. maximum duration, unassisted
  6. rest – no hangs
  7. 5  seconds
  8. 5s seconds
  9. 10 seconds
  10. 5 seconds
  11. maximum duration, unassisted
  12. rest – no hangs

Advantages to this program in my opinion:

  • The intensity is very high as the effort ranges from 5-12 second maximum effort with ample rest so it should increase neuromuscular recruitment and therefore maximum strength if done regularly. Some fingerboard routines going around these days are more strength endurance oriented in my opinion (e.g. two arm repeaters for 6 reps x 7 seconds on : 3 seconds off)
  • The volume per workout is not excessive (9 hangs x 5-12 seconds per arm) so it is less likely to cause overtraining and will leave some ‘gas in the tank’ for actual climbing/bouldering.
  • The open crimp is used, so the thumb is passive, and the index finger has a ~90 bend at the proximal interphalangeal joint (PIP) which is important if you want it to transfer to crimping on smaller holds. This grip is a good trade-off of specificity and lowered injury risk.
  • The hang duration and intensity is varied week to week and rest weeks are included which is excellent. I think that it’s a big mistake that people make, keeping workouts the same for too long without changing up the intensity and volume.

A few issues with this program in my opinion:

  • Using a sling/rope for assistance is not measurable so you can’t tell how much weight you’re taking off the working arm. Therefore, progress can only be measured by the unassisted hangs – i.e. how long you can hang (or almost hang) from one hand.
  • The intensity is extreme. He recommends at the end of each rep to let go with the assisting hand as much as possible until the active hand lets go. Since the volume is relatively low, this may be practicable but it’s definitely pushing the limits and may risk injury.
  • One-arm deadhangs, particularly with a straight arm, will put excessive strain on the shoulder, elbow and/or wrist for many people and this may affect one’s ability to get through the full 12 weeks.
  • The sling is hanging to the left of the board. This is odd because the left arm in supinated (palm in) and the right arm is pronated (palm out) so it’s not training each side symmetrically.
  • It doesn’t work on any other grips than the open crimp. Personally I think deadhangs are a good way to work on weaknesses in a controlled way, such as pockets with different combinations or 2 or 3 fingers.
  • The variation of hang duration is seemingly random. This isn’t a major issue but he doesn’t explain the rationale.

Here are some constructive suggestions to make this more effective and/or safer:

  • This could be done with two arms for less experienced (or less strong climbers), varying the intensity by putting weight in a back pack or hanging from your harness.
  • If you stick with one-arm hangs and you have the space for it, set up a 2-pulley system with weights pulling up on your harness (or hang onto that rope with the passive arm) so the assistance can be measured and you ensure that the working arm is working at an appropriate intensity.
  • If you use a sling for assistance, make it so you can hang it from either side of the board so that both arms work in the pronated (palm away) position
  • The cycling of intensity could be more linear like this, over 6 weeks: 12 sec, 10 sec, 8 sec, 6 sec, 4 sec, rest. This way the intensity goes up a bit each week, but I think it would only work if you used a pulley system, otherwise the shorter hangs might just be easier as opposed to more intense.
  • You could also so some sets with the three finger open hand grip – I think this is a good once to work on as well.

Thanks to Chris and Climblox for releasing this thought-provoking video. It definitely got me psyched to work on my one-arm deadhang strength!

Happy training :)

Treating and preventing finger tendon pulley injuries

Connor Magee asked the following via Twitter:

First off, I’m hesitant to give advice on injuries because I’m not a doctor or physiotherapist. So as a disclaimer the points in this blog should be viewed as general suggestions from one climber to another.

With that out of the way, as a general principle for climbing injuries, always think about the long term and remember that any injury you get could nag you for the rest of your climbing life. For example, my A2 pulley, right hand, ring finger suffered an epic tear over 10 years ago which required around 4 months off climbing altogether. Now that sucked. To this day I still crimp with some reservations although I can still crimp pretty well. But I far prefer the open crimp grip when I can get away with it. My point is that you should be calculated in the risks you take on bad holds – or more specifically crimps since this is an article about tendon pulleys.

Connor asked how to help it recover so I’ll make some recommendations, followed by some ideas on how to prevent such injuries.

  • When the injury first happens (or you think it might have happened), stop climbing immediately. Don’t be a hero and try to convince yourself it’s ok. If in doubt, err on the side of caution. Ice it frequently (a few times a day) and most professionals recommend anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen. The reason you want to do these things is to keep inflammation down because inflammation can cause secondary damage whereby blood doesn’t get to the tissues surrounding the injury and as a result more cells die from lack of oxygen and/or nutrients.
  • In the first few days or so, it’s hard to diagnose what really happened because of the inflammation and also because you body is cleaning out the dead tissue. You want to let it run its course before you start loading it again because you don’t really know how severe it is yet.
  • After a couple of days’ off of climbing altogether (note: other training that doesn’t involve significant gripping is ok), if it seems significant – i.e. pain/discomfort is not gone – see a physiotherapist. It’s good to find one that has worked with climbers before. If you don’t know of one, ask the ‘mature’ climbers at the gym who have been at it for a decade or more, surely they will know of one. :) I definitely have my “go to” physio in Vancouver but luckily I haven’t had to see him for a few years!
  • Once the initial inflammation/pain part has subsided, and you can imagine climbing without cringing (that’s not a typo, I mean cringing, not crimping) you can probably start back with easy route climbing on jugs, or crack climbing. Bouldering is not advised because I find even the easiest problems strain the pulleys if they are sensitive, and climbing V0’s gets boring really quickly if you’re climbing much harder than that normally. ICE it after climbing, and as often as you can. (Sometimes if feels good to take an ice cube and massage your finger with it… I don’t know if that is a clinically accepted practice but I like it.)
  • Ok, now you’re climbing again, albeit on very easy terrain. Proceed with caution though because it’s easy to get overzealous and cause re-injury which is BAD and will prolong your recovery big time. Check your ego at the door and once you feel fatigue and you’re not in full control, you should stop. Obviously if you feel sharp pain, stop climbing and call it a day. ICE, ICE, ICE.
  • As your confidence builds bouldering probably becomes more feasible, and you can start pushing yourself a bit more on the routes. However, make sure that you use the open crimp grip instead of the closed crimp grip. Basically this means you do not hook your thumb over your index finger when holding edges. As above, if you sharp pain, stop climbing and don’t fight your way up routes or boulders; you want to be in control. This is also a good phase to work on core strength, pull-ups and antagonist like the chest, shoulder and triceps muscles.
  • Keep doing the above and at some point you will realize it’s not such a big deal anymore you can start trying harder routes and push closer to your limit. Still, go easy on the crimps – opt for slopers, wide pinches and other open handed grips if you have the choice. Occasionally you can try closed crimping, but use caution.
  • Finally you are not injured anymore. Congratulations! Now you can continue working on your crimp strength more specifically, so that crimping doesn’t become a major weakness compared to other hand positions. (One upside is that your open crimp strength will be better and you won’t have to crimp as much as you did.)

Other considerations:

  • To tape or not to tape: generally I say YES because it mechanically supports the tendon pulley. But don’t go crazy on the tape because if you can’t feel anything then you don’t know if you’re doing damage or not.
  • Use of pain killers / anti-inflammatory is a double edged sword. It has its place but you don’t want to mask the pain, otherwise you can be causing damage without knowing it. Personally I rarely use them on the same day that I am climbing/training.
  • Nutrition: eat lots of fruits and vegetables and keep processed food to a minimum. If your body is to heal it needs nutrients, especially antioxidants to deal with the free-radicals resulting from cell damage.
  • If it’s longer term pulley injury (months) and you are having a hard time getting back to climbing you can try Theraputty to start stressing the tendon pulleys again and stimulate them to get stronger.

Theraputty

Ok, now on to prevention.

  • Warm up properly – I believe 100 moves are a needed before your pulleys are ready for hard crimping.
  • Stay hydrated so your tissues are well-lubricated.
  • Personally I like to tape my middle and ring fingers on the closest part (phalanx) to the palm because I’ve injured these pulleys many  times – not always severely – so I like to do this as a protective measure for all workouts or climbing days.
  • Train the open crimp more than the closed crimp because the closed grip puts the greatest strain on the pulleys. On the flipside, you should still do some closed crimping otherwise when confronted with a bad crimper with a nice thumb-catch you will not be prepared for it and could be at a greater risk of injury.
  • Don’t do marathon training sessions. Try to keep in under two hours for bouldering – maybe longer if you’re doing routes. I find the finger tweaks usually happen when I’m fatigued, after hour two. Doing more frequent session that are shorter is way more effective and safer in my opinion.
  • Vary your routine – try different workouts to mix it up and not always strain your body the same way. Train on different angles, hold types , setting styles, route/boulders, etc.

There you have it, some general recommendations on treating and preventing tendon pulley injuries. Be safe, have fun and take care of your body so you can climb until a ripe, old age! :)